Whenever listening to Leonard Cohen’s “The Story of Isaac”—a song in which war is conceived of as the semi-ritual sacrifice of a younger generation by an older one a la the Biblical myth— I have always savored its mysterious last line.
“Have mercy on our uniform,
Man of peace or man of war,
The peacock spreads his fan.”
In 1968, when Leonard Cohen came to record it for Songs from a Room, he had already seen an impressive amount of action for someone whose name remains a byword for tremulous introspection. Not only had Cohen made a point of visiting Cuba during the fall of Batista (purportedly as a kind of freelance revolutionary), but he had also made a beeline for Israel during the Six-Day War, where he hooked up with an “air force entertainment group” and performed for soldiers going into battle! Cohen’s experience on (or relatively near) the front line was apparently a very rewarding one:
“War is wonderful. They’ll never stamp it out. It’s one of the few times people can act their best. It’s so economical in terms of gesture and motion, every single gesture is precise, every effort is at its maximum. Nobody goofs off. Everybody is responsible for his brother.”
The kind of conflict alluded to in the “The Story of Isaac,” though, sounds closer in type to the Vietnam War, which pitched, to an arguably unique degree, the old—who waged it—against the young—who fought in and against it. In 1974, Cohen expanded on the concept behind the song:
“One of the reasons we do have wars periodically is so the older men can have the women. Also, to completely remove the competition in terms of their own institutional positions.”
It’s an especially dark idea, this, that behind the draft and the domino effect and the military industrial complex, lurked (and forever lurks) an aging establishment’s instinct to safeguard its tribal, reproductive privileges—shipping off the emergent generation to distant killing fields.
That Cohen was apparently thinking in the above quasi-Darwinian terms inclines me to think that (as I’ve long suspected) the song’s last line—“The peacock spreads its fan”—is intended to evoke or echo Darwin’s famous misgiving: “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!”
Darwin’s point is widely taken to refer to the egregious impracticality of a peacock’s fan, as being inhospitable to the notion of natural selection. The paradox of the peacock’s fan can be applied to the paradox of war—surely both should by now have condemned their native species to extinction. Or inevitably will,